Pamela Adlon reflects on how her real-life experience as a working actor and single mom prepared her to take the reins of her acclaimed comedy Better Things.
I feel like pie-in-the-sky is a huge part of writing and you can’t write with fear. You’ve got to write like when you’re an actor and you’re doing an improv exercise, the only two words you say are, ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes.’
There’s something about Pamela Adlon that brings to mind a grizzled police chief with a heart of gold from some ‘80s cop movie—except she’s nicer, way funnier, and doesn’t look the part at all. The writer, director, and star of the critically raved FX series Better Things, has indeed seen some shit in her time in Hollywood: The daughter of TV writer Don Segall, whose own career saw success and hardship, she’s been acting since she was a kid (Grease 2 and The Facts of Life), but never really broke out (her biggest jobs include her Emmy-winning voicing of Bobby Hill on King of The Hill and as a writer on Louie, for which she shared two Writers Guild Awards for comedy writing with Louis C.K.). But during nearly all of her adult career, she was doing something few have: managing life as a single mother, raising a small tribe of three girls. So, it makes sense she swears with fearless precision and laughs like someone who knows absurdity well.
Then, right around the time she turned 50, Adlon was catapulted into odds-defying new success with Better Things, a show based—in a stroke of simple genius—almost entirely on what she knew best: her life raising three girls through their most challenging years while working as an actor. She co-created the show with C.K., who stepped away amid his ugly, widely publicized sexual misconduct scandal right after season three was inked, leaving Adlon not only to navigate the mess, but to take charge of every aspect of the show, including the writing. That’s where the chief-with-a-heart-of-gold came in. Though she’d never been a showrunner, her seasoned talent and real-life experience was a perfect recipe for success: as a single mom of three adolescent girls, she’d run one of the most unrunable teams you could and, as far as having people rely on her, Adlon knew about that, she’d been doing it even longer than she’d been a mom.
But still, it was daunting. At first, Adlon admits, she had real trouble even imagining anyone would want to watch a show starring her. But she leaned in, and it turned out people did want to watch. Now, with the show in its fifth and final season, Adlon spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about Better Things, the importance of firm decisions, the power of music (the show’s title comes from a Kinks song) and the ultimate value of survival.
I'm curious if you've ever thought about this show in terms of it being heroic. I mean that both in terms of what you accomplished in Hollywood—making a hit show on your own terms as a woman in midlife—as well as Sam's journey as a heroine's journey within the show itself.
I always think about it that way. It struck me probably a couple of years ago. I know the show is just something that people will cherish and always can have, and that they love the story and the family and the cooking and the roller coaster of feelings and emotions.
But also, it’s the story of me, Pamela, and how when I hit 50, all of a sudden, I became not only relevant, but looked to as a boss and a creator and all of the things that would most likely have gone away if it wasn't for my show. And so, they just go hand in hand, the story, the lore of Better Things and Pam Siegel from the '80s.
It is kind of a miraculous, triumphant tale.
You're telling me.
I just thought I'd let you know, since you probably didn't.
Listen, I can roll it around over and over in my brain for the rest of my life, and it still will never cease to amaze me, the timing, for me, as the kid of a writer, producer. My father, at the end of his life he was not getting jobs as a writer because he was combating ageism and just being a guy.
Nobody wanted these crusty, old dinosaurs, and that was when my dad was 50. So that’s the third layer of crazy in terms of me looking at all this. And my dad, he couldn’t even get a pitch meeting because everybody wanted young blood, and that’s the way it still is now. My father’s the first person who I ever heard say the term, “reinventing yourself.”
You mentioned in a recent interview Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea of doing one thing every day that scares you. How much was that an important principle for you from the get-go of Better Things?
I mean, really from the snap...Being an actor for almost my entire life, that’s one thing you wouldn’t think would be daunting for me, but I was terrified to think about that. People wouldn’t want to see me star in a TV show, I couldn’t even wrap my head around that because I was always a fringe, supporting, expendable character actor. I was like, I don't even want to see me in my own show. There's no way that this is going to work.
Then for me to direct it, for me to write it. Being able to really settle into all of these different roles that I had. Looking back, I guess the best bootcamp that I could have had for doing my show and all of these jobs was being a single mom of three girls. I mean, that shit ain't easy… It’s not, believe me. Even Max, my oldest in the show, says to me, “This mom shit ain’t for pussies.” When you start something and you take on more responsibility and people are looking to, the more you lean into it and really focus on everything, then they become your abilities as opposed to just the thing you do.
You’ve said during this show’s run you realized you’re a lone wolf. Obviously, you are accountable to a crew and cast, but did that lone wolf idea help exercise the kind of courage it takes to write this?
Well, it's definitely not to diminish anybody else's contributions to my show. I couldn’t do it without my crew, I couldn’t do it without my post-production and my actors. But being a lone wolf is, again, I go to my single mom status and having to pivot all the time. I used to say that the log line or the motto of my show is like this, what happens to you when you're too busy to make any other plans, and that's what happens.
When you have three babies, and you’re raising them on your own, your life becomes so fragmented. So, in terms of making decisions, that became my superpower and in particular, you have deadlines, you’ve got to be able to make a decision and stick with it and live with it…That’s something that everybody wants and needs, especially when you’re running a show, just plant your feet firmly somewhere.
I was talking to somebody the other day about...They were talking about how some people are upset that people are putting their support behind Ukraine, because there’s so many other fucked up countries and places and things in the world. And I’m like, “Well, then nothing would ever get done if you’re like, ‘Well, fuck that.’” You've got to decide that this thing is important enough, and you really believe in it and put your back into it. And so, for me, I always kind of wrapped up every season of my show as if it was going to be the last, because you never know. Like Phil says in my show, “You only ever have today.”
You must be familiar with chaos.
I feel like it doesn't give me anxiety, chaos. I’m able to compartmentalize activity, and I don’t really look at it as chaos. In terms of directing this to writers and The Craft, it's really about compartmentalizing what you do…
I found that there are two things: if great things are happening or it’s a fucking shit show, those two things have the same value to your body physiologically. You have to maintain some kind of an even keel so you don’t get killed by the shit storms and so you don’t sit and gloat and stick your head up your own ass at the good things.
As far as you writing, when, where, and how do you do it? Are you at an office, are you in bed, are you listening to music? How do you do it?
I don’t write in bed. There’s no fucking way.
As somebody who raised my kids, that’s fucking crazy. I would be like, that’s not your desk. You have to do your homework. Get out of your bed, make a workspace. And my kids would be like, “Mom, that's not realistic.” But it doesn't work for me. One thing that’s really changed my life is my standing desk. I’m obsessed with it. It’s just, it’s everything. Do you have a standing desk?
No, but I’ve been very seriously thinking about getting one.
I’m telling you, it’s everything, everything. If I want to sit down, I have a high stool, but also it can go to regular desk height.
There’s certain music that I listen to. I love to have just calm. Brian Eno's a good go-to. But it’s funny, because I was at my old writer’s office and… I was playing a playlist that I had put in Lou Reed on... it was probably Spotify or something like that, and “Martha” came on, by Tom Waits, and that’s when I put down the draft I was writing, and I ran to open the draft of the New Orleans episode from season four. I was screaming because I got so excited that I realized, “Oh my God, Andrew is going to sing ‘Martha’ by Tom Waits. And I wrote into the script that day.
That’s such a great song, the kind of song that will inspire something like that.
Yeah. I can’t stress the value of music when you’re writing enough, because it just makes your head go to all kinds of places. But in terms of other things that I do, I made a vow to myself that if I have an idea, a detail, a piece of dialogue, a story, a concept, a character, I always write it down. I never put it off until later because it’ll be gone, there’s no fucking way you’ll remember. So, I do my drafts folder, I do my notes folder. If I’m in production, at the end of three months or something, I’ll just paste it all into one big document and then you’ve got all this gold.
For this season, I would have a folder and my writer’s assistant—I had two writer’s assistants this year—and they would keep this folder for me called “PSA loves,” those are my initials, and it would be “PSA loves” and then there would be another folder with must haves.
Those were my go-tos when I’m finessing scripts, or I’m going back and I'm like, “Wow, we really don’t have something for Duke here. We need a win for Duke.”
How heavily was the five-year arc set in your mind when you got into this and how intensely did you arc out each season?
Nobody would ever get away with what I just got away with now, because when you’re pitching a show, fuck, you guys have to have the first three seasons all arced out and probably written without a pickup.
It’s bananas. For me, everything just went exponentially—there was a pilot and then there was the first season and then I would be so cheeky that I would write a whole episode, like the Only Women Bleed [based on the song by Alice Cooper] episode, which was the season one finale. I wrote the lyrics to the song into the script. And I even called the script Only Women Bleed before I had gotten the rights to the song. I feel like pie-in-the-sky is a huge part of writing and you can’t write with fear. You’ve got to write like when you’re an actor and you’re doing an improv exercise, the only two words you say are, “Yes” and “Yes.”
That risk taking, pie-in-the-sky courage really does fuel the show, like the famous C word episode, in season four. What’s stunning about that is not the C word, it’s the shit that happens between mother and daughter leading up. The C word is actually the comedic exit ramp from some of the realist, most painful shit you’ll ever see.
I love that. I love that you said that because you see this escalation and for me, I look at Sam in that scene and she gets so enraged and then she gets reduced to tears at the end and the release, it’s about the release in that moment. And they're hurling that word at each other, but it's about being in that family, in that moment and being safe enough to say the worst word you could call a woman to your daughter and then to your mother. And they break through this thick impenetrable membrane, and all of a sudden everything is brand new and wonderful because they just went to an ugly place and that's what families are about. You have to be able to feel safe enough to say it, but you also have to back it up. You can't just drop a shit bomb and not pick it up, clean it up or apologize after and acknowledge it.
So as far as the arcs, again, you just followed your inspiration...
Yes. I guess my greatest muse is obviously my daughters and my mom and following that. And then my friends and how your life doesn't have friends a lot of times when you're raising your kids, and then your friends come back.
The first scene that I ever wrote for my show, which was kind of the prototype—not even kind of, but before I ever even sold the pilot was something that I put on ice until season three. My show wasn't ready for it until we had established Sam and this character. Maybe the scene that I had written was some place that I was in my life, but not where Sam was, because Sam was me a few years prior. It was interesting that the prototype for my show was something that my show wasn't even ready for yet. But I knew that we were heading towards that.
Because of this experience’s its ad-libbed, miraculous nature, how much has it transformed your creative process moving forward?
Absolutely. I mean, everything is different. I learned more about writing in the past two years since the shutdown than I ever have in my entire life. Everything changed for me. I'm sure for you and for everybody else, it's beyond navel-gazing. We were boots on the ground, this is about surviving and making what your brain is doing, work for you. My process, all of my workflow, everything changed in the past two years.
I was going to say that even though I have things in the works, po, po, po, it doesn't matter because all of that could go away. Tomorrow isn't promised. And just because I have a show that some people like doesn't mean that I can get another show on the air right away or get this financed or that, and it doesn't mean that I can work less hard because I can't. This season, season five of my show, I thought, Oh, yes, let's put it on cruise control. And that is not the case, it was the most challenging season and COVID was just a part of it. You can't ever stop; you know what I mean?
If you care about the work and want it to be good.
So, you're in perpetual survival mode?
That sounds like it's your life force.
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